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Doyle: Hedgehogs and Foxes

One of my favorite books is very short, but it’s about another book that is quite long. Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox is a brief study of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, which ostensibly depicts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. What it’s really about, of course, is the relationship between individual human agency and the inexorable, ultimately unknowable forces that determine the course of history.

Berlin takes his title from the Greek poet Archilochus who writes: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And he applies this epigram to a deconstruction of Tolstoy’s unique philosophy and a classification of thinkers in general. Writers like Dante or Plato are hedgehogs: viewing the world as a unified system in which everything we see or do makes sense in relation to a central coherent vision. In a sense, this kind of person encounters knowledge and confirms what they already know. Foxes however, writers like Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf, see the world as centrifugal rather than centripetal; they embrace contradictions and examine situations from a multiplicity of levels - rejecting the notion that everything can be explained by some grand theory.

As Berlin himself notes, this kind of classification can be reductive and even a bit ridiculous. But it’s also fun and can be transferred to all kinds of situations, including politics. Take our recent presidents. Carter, Reagan, and George W. Bush? Hedgehogs. Nixon, Clinton, and the first George Bush? Foxes. I’ll let you decide which camp our current president falls into.

Our state legislature really gets down to work around Groundhog Day. But while Vermonters have a great affinity with woodchucks, I think our legislators might do better than to emulate a creature that scurries out of a hole, gets scared by its own shadow, and applies the experience to the dubious business of predicting the future. Rather, I think the challenges we face today require the skepticism, complexity, and comfort with contradiction that belongs to foxes - coupled with the faith and commitment of hedgehogs.

As to whether Tolstoy was a fox or a hedgehog: Berlin says he was clearly a fox, but desperately wanted to be thought of as a hedgehog. He believed in his own self-determination and constantly, exhaustively, considered how he should live his life, but he also wanted to believe that the course of human affairs was controlled by forces beyond human understanding. He longed for a unifying system in which everything made sense, but couldn’t bring himself to actually believe in one.

Ben Doyle is a Community and Economic Development Specialist for USDA Rural Development. A former English teacher and arts administrator, Ben lives in Montpelier with his wife, Angela, and two children, Salvador and Rosemary.
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